As Winter Storm Pax pushes across the eastern United States this week, I find myself pondering the power of names.
In 2012, The Weather Channel, assisted by a Latin class at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Montana, started giving winter storms names taken from Roman history and mythology. The practice has been somewhat controversial. Unlike the naming of hurricanes, the naming of winter storms is not supported by an official weather agency, and there appear to be no set criteria for determining what counts as a storm as opposed to a few flurries (although you can read about the attempt to establish such criteria here).
The naming of storms might seem like a small semantic issue; it changes nothing about the actual weather event. But I’d like to suggest that there are potentially significant effects of this new practice. Where once we might have said, “They are calling for 2 inches of snow tonight,” we can now exclaim, “Winter Storm Kronos is coming tonight!” These two statements reveal markedly different perceptions of the same phenomenon.
When we give something a name, we contribute to a process of reification. In this case, we take a weather pattern likely to produce snow and turn it into something perceived to have a life of its own. Another way of thinking about this might be to see naming a storm as a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is true that simply by giving a name to a storm we cannot alter the strength of a storm or how much snow falls. But we can manufacture some of the effects of a storm (regardless of its manifestation) by cancelling or delaying school and work, deploying city resources to pretreat our roads, or stocking up on supplies at the grocery store.
Why might simply giving a weather pattern a name result in such a different perception of the event and alter how we respond to it? Sociologists and cultural theorists offer a key insight into this process. Sociologist Émile Durkheim, phenomenologists, and, more recently, scholars of cognitive sociology all recognize that people process information and make sense of the world by sorting it into categories and schemas. Doing so speeds up our ability to analyze the world around us and facilitates action. Categories and schema act as shortcuts and allow us to bypass energy-intensive and time-consuming processes of making sense of each stimulus anew. We don’t have to assess each assemblage of wood and upholstery every time we happen upon one; rather, we see a chair, and we sit. Likewise, when we learn that a storm is approaching, we are primed toward a certain set of expectations and actions (such as closing schools or buying extra firewood).
There are two aspects of our own cultural context that might further exacerbate our perceived difference between named “Winter Storms” and generic snow showers. First, the list of names chosen for the 2013-2014 season—titles like Atlas, Maximus, and Xeni—are names that connote strength and might. Many of them are taken from Roman and Greek myths. These other-worldly labels differ significantly from typical (and somewhat benign) hurricane names like Larry, Erin, and Carl. Surely no one would tell you to brace for Winter Storm Titan if only a dusting of snow were expected.
Second, it matters that the new practice of naming snow phenomena was preceded by the practice of naming hurricanes. Hurricanes are destructive events. To be labeled a hurricane, storms must meet certain criteria (like dangerous wind speeds). Culturally, when we hear that Hurricane Jane is going to make landfall, we know that those in its path had better “batten down the hatches” or get out of the way. Likewise, when we hear that Cleon is expected to hit tomorrow morning, we are culturally primed to expect an event of a certain magnitude.
At this point, not all news agencies are making use of the new naming system, but I do wonder about the power that such names might have if the practice becomes widespread. Over time we might come to ignore the naming of these storms and to see it only as media hype. In that case, I wonder about the impact it could have on our perception of other, more deadly weather events. If we learn to shrug off the likes of Winter Storms Vulcan and Maximus, can our dismissal of the danger of Hurricane Teddy be far behind?
Claire Maiers is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Virginia.